Thursday, April 1, 2010

Conventions Unconventional

My canon contains many books about bright young girls who aspire to an education and career that seem unattainable. There are several other conventions at work in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and each of them comes across as fresh and convincing. Jacqueline Kelly's young adult novel is about Callie, an 11-year-old girl with six brothers, growing up on a Texas farm in 1899. The story begins during a summer heat wave as Callie develops an interest in the natural world. Her observations and inquiries draw the attention of her grandfather, a reclusive codger who intimidates and generally ignores his grandchildren. Callie and Grandfather Tate discover a mutual love of natural science, much to the consternation of Callie's stern mother, who intends for her only daughter to be a proper young lady, debutante, and capable wife and mother.

Callie is disinterested in and lousy at household duties, but she's quite the impressive scientist. Although her parents can afford and hope to send their eldest son to college, Callie is the one child who really yearns to go (a vexing injustice!). Mr. and Mrs. Tate are strict but caring, and they aren't unlikable, but it's maddening that they can't see their daughter's true potential. Callie feels "like a coyote with its foot caught in a trap" and grows increasingly depressed about her fate, but she also develops a beautifully intellectual and tender relationship with her grandfather, who is sympathetic and encouraging yet doesn't try to undermine Callie's parents. There are a handful of scenes in which Callie is so frustrated with her parents' cluelessness that had me in tears. But one of the greatest joys-within-misery of life is finding the one person who understands you amongst a great many who do not, am I right?

Callie's practice of natural observation also hones her understanding of her friends and family members. She gains a special respect for her mother and the family cook, and is more adept at dealing with her little brother Travis's sensitive personality than anyone in the family. Although imperfect, she grows less selfish and more admirable with each page.

The conclusion is open-ended yet optimistic: Whereas part of me wanted a nice, tidy ending for Callie, I appreciated even more the final chapter's vision of hope.

Kelly's descriptive prose is exquisite. (Incidentally, Jacqueline Kelly is also a practicing physician and lawyer--who makes me feel like a fruitless sluggard!) Often I had to put the book down and pause, then reread a paragraph, because the language is breathtaking. She turns naturalist observations into poetry. Below are a few examples.

The opening lines to the novel are haunting: "By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns."

Grandfather Tate describes a small bat who flew into his tent: "Although it still seemed only partly sensible to its surroundings, its feet gripped the twine in what I supposed to be a kind of primitive reflex, and it folded itself with particularity and hung there as if in nature, presenting a compact parcel surprisingly tidy and pleasing to the eye."

Callie describes a caterpillar: "Petey curled into a fuzzy comma when I put the leaves in his jar."

A fuzzy comma! I still haven't gotten over it. Doesn't her way with words makes you want to leap for joy?

Finally, can you even get over that cover art? The silhouette of Callie with a butterfly net surrounded by curious creatures and plants is striking. The book was on display at our library, and I stared at it every time I walked by it, and finally decided to check it out just because the cover is incredible. I'm so glad I did.

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